Tag Archives: Children in Terezin

Petr Ginz: A Prodigy Behind Walls

Petr and Eva Ginz with their parents before the war.
Petr and Eva Ginz with their parents before the war.

The life of Petr Ginz, an artist, writer, Esperantist, magazine editor and scholar, dramatically illustrates the creativity and talent of so many children who died in the Holocaust.

Petr was born on February 1, 1928 in Prague to Otto and Miriam Ginz. His father was a manager in a textile company, and both his parents were passionate about Esperanto. In fact, his parents met at an Esperantist convention and taught the language to Petr and his younger sister, Eva. The children were from an interfaith background; Otto was Jewish and Miriam was Christian.

From a young age, Petr’s intelligence, curiosity and passion for knowledge was evident. He wrote his first novel at age 8 and wrote 5 novels in all before he was deported to Terezin. A skilled artist, Petr also illustrated the novels himself. He was interested in a wide variety of subjects, including literature, art, science, history and geography, was an avid reader and also recorded his experiences in a diary. Petr’s enthusiasm for the arts and learning did not diminish after he was transported to Terezin at age 14, in October 1942. He continued his studies and borrowed countless books from the makeshift Terezin library, and wrote short novels. He also made a major contribution to the cultural life of Terezin when he established a literary magazine called Vedem (We lead), which he published weekly. Petr wrote many of the pieces himself, and other boys from his barrack contributed work as well. The magazine featured pieces on daily life in Terezin, satirical essays, short fiction, poetry and artwork.

A close bond developed between the boys of Petr’s barrack, L417. They called their barrack the Republic of Shkid, and created a flag and national anthem. Their creativity and imagination in such circumstances were remarkable, as was the amount of work they produced for Vedem, much of which survives today.

Petr often wrote very matter-of-factly about the events he experienced and life in Terezin, and even managed to insert some humor. He did write some poignant pieces as well, most notably a poem in which he described how he missed Prague, though he knew it did not miss him. He described how he could not return because he was living like a caged animal but would always long for Prague, his “fairy-tale in stone.”

Tragically, he would never see Prague again. Petr was assigned to one of the last transports to leave Terezin, in September 1944. His sister Eva, who adored him, wrote about the day Petr left in her own diary. After Petr boarded the train, Eva spotted him at one of the windows and managed to pass some bread to him through the window, to hold his hand one more time before she was chased away by guards. Eva wrote honestly and poignantly about how she worried about her brother and wondered if he was still alive.

At the age of 16, Petr was murdered in the gas chambers of Auschwitz, like hundreds of thousands of others. A prodigy was lost that day, and we will never know how many other gifted, talented young people were lost that same day. What remains are the writings and drawings he left behind, which his sister Eva preserved and shared with the world after the war, a poignant reminder of all that was lost the day Petr Ginz died.

Picture of the Ginz Family from Krizkova, Marie R., Kotouc, Kurt J. & Ornest, Zdenek. We Are Children Just the Same: Vedem, the Secret Magazine of the Boys of Terezin. The Jewish Publication Society, 1995. Print. Used with permission.

Further Reading
We Are Children Just the Same: Vedem, the Secret Magazine by the Boys of Terezin (by Marie Krizkova, Kurt Jiri Kotouc and Zdenek Ornest)

The Diary of Petr Ginz (edited by Chava Pressburger)

Franta Maier and the Boys of Room 7, Part 2

A few days after arriving at Terezin, the children were assigned to various barracks based on their age and gender. Franta later spoke of the impact this trauma had on the children, saying that they were in shock at their world being torn apart once again. Franta remained in charge of these children, and he was able to access the barracks whenever necessary.

Under Franta’s influence, the children received extra rations and were kept on a schedule which included exercise, classes and recreation. He was assigned to be a madrich (leader) in Room 7, in which 40 boys aged twelve and thirteen lived.

Franta kept the boys on a disciplined schedule, and made sure they were clean and that the room was orderly. But what made the greatest impact on the boys was how Franta would speak to them at night and tell them that no matter what the Nazis did, they could not take away the boys’ dignity and humanity. He told them they had three duties: to survive, to respect their parents, and to be ready for a new life when the war was over. He encouraged them to love life, no matter what hardships they endured.

Still, Franta had fears and vulnerabilities that the boys did not know about. They did not know about the heartbreak he experienced when he proposed marriage to a woman named Lucy, hoping to save her from the transports. Lucy accepted his proposal, but Franta’s mother convinced Lucy to break off the engagement, believing this was the wrong time and place to marry. Lucy was later transported with her parents, and Franta was unable to forgive his mother for years. The boys also didn’t know how much Franta feared for them, how at night he would break down and cry silently as he wondered what would happen to them the next day.

A creative life developed in Room 7; they were the first home to produce plays, and two literary magazines, Rim Rim and Nesar were created and circulated. A sense of community developed among the boys of Room 7, and deep friendships were forged. When some of the boys had to leave on a transport, there was a profound sorrow when they had to say good-bye and the entire community felt the losses.

In September 1944, Franta was assigned to a transport. The night before he left, Franta said good-bye to the boys in Room 7; the scene was poignantly described by Pavel Weiner in his diary. Franta was sent to Auschwitz, where he learned that his family was dead, as were most of the children. He vowed he would live to see the Nazis defeated. In January, Franta was placed on a death march to a work camp called Blechhammer. As the Russians approached, the Nazis abandoned the camp, and Franta walked out of the camp to search for food. He was discovered by some Russian soldiers, who sent him to a repatriation center in Czestochowa. He later became a civilian assistant to an officer for the remainder of the war.

After the war, Franta worked hard to get properties back from the 24 relatives he lost during the war. He returned to his hometown of Brno and later married a woman who had lost her husband in the war. They immigrated to America in 1947, and Franta found work in a business that produced malt for breweries. Though he initially did not know anything about this industry, he learned quickly and became a successful businessman in the malt business and later the paper export business.

Franta died in 2013, and the surviving boys of Room 7 remember to this day how he profoundly touched their lives. Franta put forth tremendous effort to provide order, stability and compassion to these young boys, and their bond with him and with one another remained strong many decades later.

Further Reading
Nesarim: Child Survivors of Terezin by Thelma Gruenbaum

Pavel Weiner: Boy Chronicler of Terezin, Part 1

As I mentioned in my earlier post about the young diarist Helga Pollak, there were many boy.in.terezinpeople who kept diaries in Terezin, including children. Many of these documents have been lost, which makes the ones we do have all the more valuable. One diary that has been translated and published in English belonged to a young boy named Pavel Weiner.

Pavel was born and raised in Prague and lived in a middle-class home with his parents Ludvik and Valy and his older brother Handa. The family was not particularly religious, but their social network consisted mainly of their Jewish friends and relatives. Everything changed when the Nazis came to power and began enforcing anti-Jewish laws. And then in May 1942, Pavel and his family was sent to Terezin, ending the life they had known. The family was separated and assigned to different barracks, and Pavel was sent to Room 7 in building L417, which was the designated Kinderheim (children’s home) for Czech boys. The Kinderheim was created by Jewish administrators of Terezin and was designed to create better living conditions for the children and to facilitate secret classes for them.

Much of Pavel’s diary takes place in the heim, and focuses on his relationships with the other boys and the youth leaders who ran his heim. He didn’t start writing his diary until April 1944, when he was twelve years old. Despite the situation he was in, many of the challenges Pavel faced were interpersonal. He argued with the boys, and was sometimes teased and excluded by them. This led to Pavel feeling alienated from them much of the time. He longed for affirmation from Franta, his youth leader, and often was hurt when Franta appeared to favor other boys over him. Pavel worried intensely about his father’s health and his mother’s well-being, and yet he often argued with them, in particular with his mother. Pavel also founded a literary magazine, Nesar, which was no easy task, as he struggled to recruit the other boys in his heim to contribute articles and drawings and worked hard to build a readership. Still, he managed to produce thirteen issues, and later contributed to another magazine called Rim Rim.

Many months later, in August 1944, Pavel reflected more deeply on his feelings and the situation he was in. He discussed his anger that two years of his life were stolen from him, that he had no opportunity and no freedom in Terezin. He vowed to write about his feelings so that he might learn from them, to study hard and to start a new life for himself, even within the ghetto walls. He tried hard to keep to his goals, though it was far from easy.

Then in late September 1944, the terrifying news arrived that another transport was scheduled, consisting of men aged sixteen to fifty-five. In a panic, Pavel raced to find his father and learned that his father and his brother Handa were on the transport. Terribly upset and anxious, Pavel returned to his barrack to find that his youth leader, Franta was also on the transport. The sight of Franta sitting around the table with the boys overwhelmed Pavel, and he couldn’t hold back his tears any longer.

In entries that follow, Pavel reflected on the sorrow he felt following the transport and continuously worried about his father and Handa. Most of the boys in his heim were gone, including the few he considered friends and he was terribly lonely, longing for a friend to confide in. He wrote about his loss of enthusiasm and motivation for everything, and no longer felt any comfort or pleasure in anything. Despite his depression and intense feelings of loss, Pavel continued with his studies, continued to write, and began to work in the ghetto bakery and warehouses. Rumors of the Allied advance drifted into Terezin as the winter dragged on, but the liberation still did not come. More and more, Pavel wondered if the liberation would ever arrive and if he would live to see it.

The Little Known Diarist

Hannelore Brenner’s book The Girls of Room 28 relates the experiences of ten women who survived Terezin. The book goes into detail about each of these women, and is a worthwhile read. For my blog, I decided to focus on two of the women whose stories resonated most strongly with me. The first woman is Helga Pollak, who kept a remarkable diary during her time at Terezin. Her complete diary has not been published in English, though segments of it are included in Brenner’s book.

Cover of Helga Pollak's published diary
Cover of Helga Pollak’s published diary

Helga Pollak was born in Vienna on May 28, 1930. Her father Otto was a disabled war veteran who owned a large concert café. When she was eight years old her parents divorced and Helga continued to live with her father. That same year, 1938, after the situation deteriorated for Jews in Austria, Helga’s parents sent her to Czechoslovakia.

Helga attended a German-speaking school in the city of Brno and had to live in a boardinghouse by herself. After Helga’s mother dropped her off in Brno, Helga watched her mother walk away and then went into a deserted room and sobbed. I could only imagine how terrifying and devastating this separation would be for a little girl. It is no wonder that Helga fell into a state of apathy and depression. Helga’s father ultimately arranged for her to stay with relatives in the town of Kyjov. She couldn’t speak Czech and had to repeat 2nd grade, but was much happier.

In 1939, Helga was supposed to travel to Great Britain as a child refugee, where she would join her mother, who had managed to emigrate there earlier. But after the German army invaded Poland and World War II began, the borders were closed, and Helga was trapped in Czechoslovakia. She would not see her mother again for nearly eight years.

Beginning in 1943, Helga recorded many of her experiences in a diary. Many Jews kept diaries during the war, but except for Anne Frank’s iconic diary, most are not well known. While Anne’s diary is exceptionally well-written, she is too often depicted as a symbol for the suffering of Jewish children during the Holocaust. That risks downplaying her individuality and the way she perceived what was happening to her, and I fear it may have resulted in other war diaries being ignored.

In the excerpts from Helga’s diary we see a sensitive girl who felt alienated from the girls in her barrack, and worried that they did not like her. We learn of her intense fears when her infant cousin Lea is seriously ill, and of her close relationship with her beloved father Otto. Helga also had moments of hope, of being deeply moved by the beauty of a sunset, for even Terezin’s walls could not block out the sky.

On October 23, 1944, Helga and some other girls from Room 28 were placed on a transport to Auschwitz. Helga survived the selection and vainly tried to search for her Lea, who she would never see again. She was sent from Auschwitz to different labor camps, and eventually returned to Terezin in late April 1945 where she was reunited with her father. The letter she wrote to him upon her return is deeply touching, as she so badly wanted to stay with him but could not because she was placed under quarantine.

Eventually she and her father were able to return to their surviving relatives in Kyjov, and the following year Helga went to England to join her mother. She completed high school and college, and later married a Prussian Jew who had fled to Bangkok to escape the Nazis. Helga and her husband lived in Thailand and Ethiopia until 1957, when they returned to Vienna with their children to be near Helga’s beloved father.

Though not published in its entirety, segments of her diary have been featured in the documentary films Terezin Diary and Voices of the Children and the main character of a play Ghetto Tears 1944: The Girls of Room 28 was based on Helga Pollak, the little known diarist of Terezin.

Further Reading
The Girls of Room 28: Friendship, Hope and Survival in Theresienstadt , by Hannelore Brenner

Behind the Scenes with the Terezin Storytellers

Recently, I had the opportunity to speak more with filmmaker Rich Krevolin about Making Light in Terezin. We discussed the significance of the story of the Terezin artists, the challenges of communicating such an incredible story and how to continue to spread the word about Terezin. The story of how many Terezin prisoners managed to create works of poetry, theater, music instead of giving into despair is an incredible story of resilience and is an affirmation of humanity in the midst of a regime that was committed to the destruction of humanity. These works of art and how they came into being are the powerful legacy of the prisoners of Terezin. This legacy is not so widely known, which is why we must continue to spread the word about it.

Mural in Prague with partially obscured Star of David
Mural in Prague with partially obscured Star of David

The way we communicate this story has its challenges, and both Rich and I shared the concern that by focusing on the creative pursuits of many Terezin prisoners, the horrors of the ghetto risk being downplayed. By no means do we wish to imply that the Terezin prisoners were privileged in any way. They were not able to create because conditions were better than in other ghettos, but rather they created in spite of the rampant disease, cold and starvation. Initially, people had to create their works in secret, as any artistic expression was forbidden. Gradually, over time the Nazis permitted such pursuits to an extent, primarily so they could exploit the works and build a façade of Terezin as a model ghetto. The reason that many of these works survive today is thanks to those prisoners who remained in Terezin and carefully hid away and guarded these works. Some of these works, like the cabaret, were preserved for decades before they were rediscovered.

Those of us who have committed ourselves to telling the story of Terezin have done so through the use of film, scholarly articles, traditional book publishing and blogging. We all share the desire to make this story more widely known and appreciated. Rich has been successful in promoting Making Light in Terezin, which has aired on PBS and is still aired from time to time. The documentary has also been shown at film festivals worldwide. Rich would like to continue to spread the word by finding an international distributor, and I sincerely hope he is successful in these efforts.

Theater is another way this story is told. In addition to her scholarly work, Dr. Lisa Peschel collaborates with theater departments at various universities to produce the Terezin cabaret and other dramatic works. Seeing these productions live must be an incredible experience, and I greatly hope that I can work to arrange for a production to come to Colorado. For now, I am focused on researching, developing and growing my blog as the main way to share the stories of the artists of Terezin. I feel so strongly that these stories must be passed along, and it is truly heartening to speak with others who feel the same.